Growing up half Syrian in the US was strange in the 1970s. My mom is Irish and my dad is Syrian. I remember going to school and my mom would pack babbaghanoush and pita with falafel for lunch when I was 10 years old. The kids in the school cafeteria would be eating their school lunches of pizza and burgers and I would pull my lunch out… slightly embarrassed. There was always some kid who would say “What is that?”, in that tone that is slightly accusatory. I would try to explain it but could tell that I lost them when I got to the eggplant. Then I would say I’m Arabic and my dad is Syrian. At that time no kids I knew recognized what Syrian was. They would look at me like, “huh?”
When I was at Bronx High School of Science or my year-long stint at SUNY Albany, I never met one kid who knew where Syria was on the globe… and I’m not sure if I knew where it was either.
Even though I’m 3rd generation American, some members of my Syrian family, every now and then, act as though they had just moved to the states. There is a sense of great pride in being Syrian and American coupled with an insecurity of being both and an ‘other’ and a ‘typical American’.
When I was 28 I decided to take a trip to Damascus to see what Syria was about. I went alone and I was the first in my family for 3 generations to be on those streets.
I had been to Egypt and Turkey and those were the countries I thought I could compare it to. Neither was a good comparison.
Damascus is the oldest city in the world and feels like it. The alleys and markets were winding and ancient. There were murals of Assad all over and in a weird way the population seemed innocent because they were so isolated from the rest of the world.
I can’t say it was a beautiful city but it was one that was steeped in an old culture. I vividly remember the remnants of Russia’s involvement with Syria, with some tanks and military tributes and a few blonde Syrian children running around amidst a pack of dark haired kids. A sign of Russian soldiers leaving their mark.
I was also struck by how I did not see one gay man in all of Syria…. except for this one guy with over plucked eye brows in the bazaar selling fabrics. Not surprising since Muslims are not fans of the gays.
Anyway… it does hurt to see the population of Syria being beaten down with no end in sight. I think for many Americans there is a sense of danger that’s attached to any Arabic country and to what goes on in it, but at the end of the day they are people with families, children, and complicated lives now much more complicated by violence and war.
Possibly in our lives we will see peace in the Middle East but it will take a lot of empathy and openness to get there. We can only hope.